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King of Carnival

Saturday, February 19, 2011
Peter Samuel

 My name is Peter Samuel and I’ve been King of Carnival eight times.I was born, grew up and spent most of my life in Woodbrook, Alfredo Street, three streets from (bandleader) Stephen Lee Heung.  I now live in the West but my navel string is still very much in Woodbrook. Woodbrook was suburban in my childhood. Everybody on the Avenue was resident. The whole of south of Wrightson Road was a playground. Endless downs trees. Eat downs ’til you get sick.

I enjoy the age I am now. I would not like to be a teenager growing up now. All the temptation and the crime and the drugs and the Aids. The only year I didn’t fight in Fatima was my last year, but the most would happen is your clothes get rip. Now, who ain’t coming to school with knife, coming to school with gun. I love sports. Any sports. It could be tiddlywinks, once is competitive. 

I can’t tell you the last time I went to see a West Indies match. I’m turned off it from an administrative point of view. Our cricketers are far better than the results they’re producing and it’s due to management.

I’m not putting down my government but I’m yet to meet anyone from any part of the world that knows Trinidad and Tobago because of our politicians. They know Trinidad and Tobago because of David Rudder, Ato Boldon, Dwight Yorke, Hasely Crawford. Once, in Greece, I met an Ethiopian living in LA who knew about Trinidad because of Brian Lara!

My first involvement in mas was while I was in Fatima in 1986. Starlift had a band called Shindig. Ray Holman, who was arranging for Starlift, was teaching me history and Spanish. I brought out a section in Shindig. Your band fee was a dollar. You made your own costume. The band had 5,000 people in it and the music was Starlift alone. You playing mas but all you hearing is the shuffling of the feet. After that, I was hooked.

Peter Minshall would tell me, “This is what we portraying. You take it where you have to go.” I would try to become part of the costume. The year I played Devil Ray, when I was crossing the stage, as far as I was concerned, I was underwater. You wanted people to think the costume was dancing, not you. You could hear when the audience reacted when you did something and you tell yourself, “Right! That works!” You might want to go left but the wind telling you, “Eh-eh, we going right.” One performance, I walked off stage backwards. The crowd loved it but in reality the breeze just wouldn’t let me turn around.

You’ll hear other people talking about how they worked on a costume for four months. We used to laugh. Sacred and Profane we did in a week. Tan-Tan and Saga Boy, both costumes were done in two weeks. It was always taking it down to the wire with Minshall. Your adrenalin goes through the roof when you hear the North Stand or Grandstand erupt. The year I played The Sacred and the Profane, down to my parents didn’t recognise me. I didn’t recognise myself. Mr Minshall spent eight hours doing the first paintjob on the bodysuit. I shaved my head, beard, eyebrows half-an-hour before going to the Savannah. I had on overalls over the body suit. Friends standing right next to me asking, “Where Peter?” When I stood up onstage I heard one loud, “Ohhhhhhh!” And I just saw people running to the costume! I had to have security because people were running up to touch me, to see if I was naked.

I performed with that Saga Boy costume last year. More than 21 years later these costumes are getting the same reaction. The best part of being King of Carnival was a show for Bastille Day in Paris with Jean-Michel Jarre. I was the opening thing on the show in the Praying Mantis, a costume that never hit the stage in Trinidad. Visualise a stage 100’ x 100’ six storeys above the ground, literally over the Champs Elysses. When the curtain went up, you were seeing people as far as the eye could see, literally to the horizon. It was in the Guinness Book of Records for a while as the biggest ever attended live open-air concert, over three million people.

The worst part of being King of Carnival was my fellow Trinidadians. My costume, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, we got to the Savannah late. The kings had already crossed but the judges were prepared to judge us. I was in the costume at the foot of the stage and my fellow competitors literally physically formed a human chain to prevent me getting onstage. Only the bandleader Glenn Cavarlho tried to help us. I remember, as a child, watching George Bailey coming up the road, and you watching real chariots! I get goosebumps to talk about Rome. That’s what Carnival is missing.

I won’t play my own king in my first year as a bandleader. I want to make sure my masqueraders get what we promised, the music, the drinks, the food. Read a considerably longer version of this feature at


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